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Deerfield Wind project opponents have their day in court

An effort to stop construction of a 30 megawatt ridge-line wind development in the Green Mountain National Forest got a hearing Wednesday in Federal Court in Brattleboro. The 15-turbine Deerfield Wind project has been authorized by the U.S. Forest Service and permitted by the state. But opponents say the Forest Service approval process was flawed. And they argue that the installation would compromise a federally designated wilderness area near the site.

If it survives the legal challenge, Deerfield Wind will be the first privately backed industrial wind installation in the country to be built on publicly-owned land.

A citizens group, Vermonters for a Clean Environment, has appealed the Forest Service decision. They say the feds failed to adequately examine important issues in their Final Environmental Impact Statement.

The turbines would be built on national forest land a little over a mile from the George D. Aiken Wilderness at their closest point. Stephen Saltonstall, a lawyer for the environmental group, argued before U.S. District Judge J. Garvin Murtha that the 400-foot towers would be visible from many locations in the wilderness area.

“Also, seven of them would be lit at night with these flashing lights,” Saltonstall says. “And that is totally inconsistent with provision of the Wilderness Act. So I’m hopeful that the court will find that the forest service plan will ruin the Aiken wilderness and turn it into an industrial zone in violation of the law.”

The Green Mountain National Forest was represented by attorneys from the U.S. Department of Justice. They said the laws governing wilderness areas didn’t apply to surrounding lands. They said the Forest Service was following U.S. energy policy directives in approving the Deerfield Wind proposal. The federal government has encouraged the development of renewable energy projects on public lands. The Justice Department lawyers said the Deerfield site was one of 37 identified nationwide as likely candidates for such projects. They also contended that the Green Mountain National Forest correctly followed federally-mandated procedures and listened carefully to public comments in evaluating the project.

Lawyers for Vermonters for a Clean Environment said many issues were neglected or improperly addressed in the Forest Service’s final Environmental Impact Statement. They claimed the Forest Service didn’t thoroughly examine alternatives to the specific project proposed by Deerfield Wind LLC. The development group is a subsidiary of Iberdrola Renewables, a Spanish energy conglomerate.

Lawyers for the environmental group also argued that the impact statement didn’t consider new data on bats, or possible environmental consequences of the blasting necessary to build the ridge-top installation.

The Department of Justice lawyers presented their evidence against those claims and others, but declined to speak with reporters. State Representative John Moran, who watched the proceedings, had no such compunctions. Moran represents Searsburg and Readsboro, where the project is located.

“I think this is a win-win,” Moran said after the hearing. “What we have here is renewable, clean energy and we have local support for it.”

Judge Murtha said he would render a decision on the appeal as soon as possible.

[audio available]